Reviewed by Paul Cooke

Any Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production is going to be buoyed by the backdrop of the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and of course the shimmering shining waters of the Harbour itself at dusk. The question is whether the show will live up to the setting.

The set itself doesn’t disappoint. Marked out like a basketball court, back of centre stage is dominated by two structures that look like heavily graffitied railway carriages. At the right-hand edge of the stage is a representation of the Statue of Liberty, welcoming refugees and migrants to New York; at the left, the ground floor of the apartment building where Maria lives is daubed with an exhortation to her and her Puerto Rican community to “Go home”. Beyond the confines of the set, we can see the high-rises of Macquarie Street, a reminder that both Jets (boys born in America but with Polish roots) and Sharks (the recently arrived Puerto Rican immigrants) have no access to the “high life”. I was reminded of those convicts, and later recalcitrant boys and girls, sent to nearby Cockatoo Island, so close to, and yet so far from, the attractions of the city.

Photo supplied by Opera Australia

My awareness of West Side Story has come mostly from listening to discrete songs performed by musicians such as Dave Brubeck and Don Reid, Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras: it was a revelation to hear the songs in context and as part of a story with something to say, and Nina Korbe as Maria sang beautifully. Also revelatory were the athleticism and all-round talent of the singers/dancers/actors in physically demanding roles: the stage is nearly two and a half times the size of any indoor stage in Australia – and it slopes.

Photo supplied by Opera Australia

I appreciated the efforts of the director to maintain the timelessness of the story and at the same time get us to think about important issue it raises, whether that is Bernstein’s “out and out plea for racial tolerance” or the marginalisation of women in the gangland milieu.

A triumph.